The gloomy, noir charm of Battlestar Galactica.

What you're watching.
Oct. 13 2006 6:24 PM

Apocalypse Noir

The gloomy charm of Battlestar Galactica.

Edward James Olmos (left) and Tory Foster in the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica. Click image to enlarged view.
Edward James Olmos and Rekha Sharma in the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica (Sci Fi, Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), now entering its third season, is not science fiction—or "speculative fiction" or "SF," or whatever you're supposed to call it these days. Ignore the fact that the series is a remake of a late-'70s Star Wars knockoff. Forget that its action variously unfolds on starships and on a colonized planet called New Caprica. And never mind its stunning special effects, which outclass the endearingly schlocky stuff found elsewhere on its network. Sullen, complex, and eager to obsess over grand conspiracies and intimate betrayals alike, it is TV noir. Listen to Adm. William Adama (Edward James Olmos) gruffly rumble along as a weary soldier in a crooked universe. Check out the way that Hitchcock kisses lead seamlessly to knives in the gut. Just look at the Venetian blinds.

The palette is doggedly sober—a downbeat blend of gun-metal grays, military greens, matte blacks, dull whites, and deep blues. The shadows shift like paranoid fantasies, while the sunlight seems to brood. And when BSG's producers want to introduce a shock of brightness (and their story doesn't immediately call for a small apocalypse of digital explosions), their go-to girl is actress Tricia Helfer, who plays Number Six.


Number Six is a Cylon, and Cylons are robots, mean ones bent on crushing what remains of the human race. Old models, called "toasters," resemble RoboCop as reinterpreted by H.R. Giger. Number Six, however, is of the new school, a skin-job. She's a dime-novel femme fatale as Joe Eszterhas might have written one—adultery-red skirts and a pop of platinum hair. It says here in the press materials that Number Six "can resurrect herself by downloading into a new version of her body." How many boys do you suppose have gone looking for that URL? Shouldn't they all get out more?

I had to rely on the PR kit to sort out some of this business because I am new to Battlestar Galactica, and Battlestar Galactica—like the movie version of The Big Sleep—is not especially eager to make any sense. That's not strictly a bad thing: Its comic-strip story (Humans vs. Robots, Round 15) is as elemental as they come, so the show's moments of ambiguity and its clever subplotting lend it some needed substance and shading. The tricky storytelling is part of the noir charm. Tonight's episode, for instance, begins with a man in a ski mask liberating Cally (Nicki Clyne) from her robot captors. She takes off sprinting through the woods, and—cut. "One hour earlier," reads the title card, and, happily disoriented, we slide out of the frame narrative and back in time.

The show also tries terribly hard to be heavy, piling on allusions to the war on terror and sluggish existential hoo-ha in a way that may get you wondering what's in the fridge. It's all very groovy that you can read Battlestar Galactica as a political parable, but the program doesn't seem to have a complete confidence in its goals—in its ability to work as both a piece of art engaged with life during wartime and as a slip of entertainment about robot hotties. Some of that noir gloom is the show's self-seriousness about its own Seriousness. There's no reason for Battlestar Galactica to push its tone to the point of dreariness; it already works perfectly as a space-age mood piece.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2006: Due to a production error, actress Rekha Sharma was originally and incorrectly identified in a caption as "Tory Foster," the name of the character she plays.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 29 2014 3:10 PM The Lonely Teetotaler Prudie counsels a letter writer who doesn’t drink alcohol—and is constantly harassed by others for it.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.